The Philippine National Police (PNP) on Tuesday admitted that kidnapping incidents involving personnel of the controversial Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs) spiked from January to September this year, compared to the same period last year.
This developed as legislators appeared to disagree on what the government should do to resolve the problems associated with the POGOs.
Senator Joseph Victor “JV” Ejercito expressed his support for the summary deportation of some 2,000 illegal and overstaying POGO workers.
Albay Rep. Joey Sarte Salceda warned however, that banning the POGOs might worsen the social costs associated with gambling as “it will only drive their operations underground beyond the reach of the law.”
Citing the latest data, the PNP’s anti-kidnapping task force said a total of 17 POGO-related kidnapping cases were reported so far this year, compared to 12 incidents from January to December last year.
PNP records showed however that the first nine months of 2022 saw 13 kidnap for ransom (KFR) cases, compared to 24 traditional KFR cases logged in 2021.
Authorities also recorded one casino-related kidnapping this year.
So far, a total of 31 kidnapping cases have been recorded, still lower than a total of 36 cases in 2021.
The victims of POGO-related kidnapping incidents last year include 19 Chinese nationals and one Vietnamese, while from January to September this year, the victims consisted of 19 Chinese nationals, a Vietnamese, a Malaysian, and a Taiwanese.
Out of the 36 kidnapping cases in 2021, 23 cases were solved, seven were cleared and six were still under investigation.
Meanwhile, 14 of this year’s kidnapping cases were solved, five were cleared and 12 were still under investigation.
PNP chief Gen. Rodolfo Azurin Jr. said earlier the crackdown on POGOs linked to illegal activities was part of the government’s efforts to preserve the country’s safe business climate.
Azurin said the POGOs have agreed to comply with the clearances from both the PNP and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) as part of the requirements for working in the country.
He said this was an offshoot of the meeting they initiated with POGOs amid the rising cases of criminal activities in the country which involve their workers.
The PNP was also working with the POGOs to require their workers to present proof that they are not wanted for criminal offenses in their respective countries.
“With such a requirement, the government can ascertain that POGO workers coming here are law-abiding in their country and can also be law-abiding and respectful of our laws here,” Azurin said.
Meanwhile, Ejercito stressed that the illegal and overstaying aliens should be deported.
He warned that foreign criminal syndicates have been taking advantage of POGOs to remain in the Philippines and conduct criminal activities in the country.
In fact, he said, there might be some foreign national syndicates who were using the POGO business to enter the country and conduct their criminal activities here. He said these foreigner are not just Chinese criminal syndicates, but also Cambodian and Vietnamese criminal syndicates.
“The Bureau of Immigration, the National Bureau of Investigation, and Philippine National Police should work double time to monitor and detect these kinds of operations,” he added.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) earlier announced that it is planning to deport thousands of POGO workers by mid-October.
This comes after the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR) terminated the licenses of at least 175 POGOs throughout the country.
The move, which was prompted by a recent spate of kidnappings and other criminal activities linked to POGOs, was expected to displace around 40,000 foreign nationals working in the country, most of whom are Chinese.
Ejercito previously filed Senate Resolution No. 194, which sought to direct the Senate Committee on Public Order and Dangerous Drugs to conduct a probe on these “alarming” cases of kidnapping, abduction, and disappearances, especially those against women, POGO workers, and Filipino-Chinese individuals.
The resolution highlighted the alleged kidnapping of a Chinese national in broad daylight along the Skyway elevated highway and the documented torture of a male victim whose ear was cut off.
The resulting investigation found that foreign nationals have been employing private guards in possession of high-powered firearms and using fraudulent identification cards and those belonging to deceased individuals to stay in the country.
The lawmaker from San Juan said the national government risks losing the confidence of investors and the rest of the business sector if these security concerns are not addressed.
“Definitely, peace and order situation is the biggest factor in having a climate conducive for business to grow for us to be able to rebuild the economy after the pandemic.”
For his part, Salceda said gambling has been digitalizing.
“First it was e-sabong (electronic cockfighting), then e-bingo and e-casino. You can only stop gambling if you can stop digitalization. Can you stop the digitalization of gambling? \
“Can you stop digitalization?” Salceda asked.
Salceda, chairman of the House committee on Ways and Means, maintained that
the better approach to POGOs is to regulate and tax them properly, and to strictly enforce the law to solve gambling-related crimes of kidnapping, extortion, and prostitution.
“We have one of the most brutal tax laws on POGOs in the whole world. In fact, we’re the only one with a law on POGOs. You cannot stop gambling unless you stop digitalization. These digital gaming, they keep appearing again and again. The solution is to just regularize and regulate it basically…to have very strong regulatory powers,” he said.
“There should be a systematic approach, a physical way of addressing the problem with the combined action of the NBI (National Bureau of Investigation), PNP (Philippine National Police), and BID (Bureau of Immigration and Deportation),” he added.
On arguments that having POGOs is not worth the social problems, Salceda said that POGOs provide tens of thousands of jobs to Filipinos, as well as billions in revenues to government and other allied enterprises.
“If you ban POGOs, about 20,000 direct hires and around 70,000 more who are indirectly employed like waiters and drivers may lose their jobs,” he said.
According to Salceda, at the height of the POGO operations, the overall contribution of POGOs to the Philippine economy is P600 billion.
“Now it’s is about P128.5 billion in terms of aggregate demand, with P19 billion on annual office rent. There’s household rent, there’s electricity payment, yung kinakain P11 million, nandyan pa yung spending ng mga employees,” he said.
Salceda also said that with China’s ban on sending Mandarin-speaking workers to the Philippines, many of the foreigners hired for local POGOs come from other ASEAN countries who can enter the Philippines visa-free.
In the same interview, Salceda said that the 2023 national budget is premised on not imposing new taxes and a seven percent gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate.
To raise revenues that may fund the P588-billion unprogrammed items in the budget, Salceda said, government will sell the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (Pagcor) for P250 billion.
Salceda said that President Marcos is likely to privatize Pagcor and adopt the recommendation of the Governance Commission on GOCCs or government-owned and -controlled corporations (GCG) to separate Pagcor’s proprietary and regulatory functions.
This way, he explained, the country will earn from the Pagcor sale, as well as from net annual revenue of P21 billion in fees and taxes.